Finally, after a long winter’s tail end, spring has arrived. The redbuds and apples and lilacs have bloomed and the grapes are pushing so quickly you can watch them grow. Already the yard needs a good shave.
As a gardener or keeper of lawn, I tend toward the squalor of growth. I do not get out of bed early and my harness hangs untended. Nature wends its way up the sides of house and the vines crawl across the ground. Left to my own devices, I’d let it all go absolutely wild. The cinquefoil would prosper. The ragweed would hit the lottery. The henbit bloom and proliferate and mold. They’d all do fine without my attention.
Fortunately or unfortunately, this is America, and people like their neighbors’ yards in some kind of order. Since my spread is quite small and filled with all sorts of yard art and terraces—I built a deck on the front of my house—there is little for the traditional gas-powered lawn mower to chew through. Instead, I have to use a weed-whacker to cut and trim and keep the city codes people at bay.
I say fortunately because I have to pay attention to what’s going on around me. Left to my own devices, I’d dither about on the side of the house and in the backyard, my head in the clouds, my soul rejoicing in the salacious, lascivious growth all about me. I’d revel in green tongues licking my ankles and tugging at my shorts.
My neighbors’ expectations keep me on my toes. For them, I keep the weed-machine oiled and filled with gas. Every now and then, usually after they have tended their yards, I cut grass and prune vines and trees. I chop back the riotous grape vines and pull the ragweed. My mulch pile gets its nutrition from my labors.
I say unfortunately because I would love to see, just once, what would happen to the yard after a year left to its own devices. Knowing Missouri, its weather and heat, I imagine the yard would become an impenetrable mess after a good summer and fall. The grapes, which are hardy and strong, would wrap around the house. The boxwood and Virginia creeper would envelope whatever stood upright. The silver maple I keep bonsaied by the wall would shoot up through the limbs of the buckeye and form new canopy. They would all die back in fiery color when the weather turned and the light dimmed. I’d like to experience the changing of the guard in the fall, just to see what plants take over after the summer flora has given up.
Every March, I get busy with shears and pruners. I’m merciless with grapevines and apple trees. I peal a layer of dried cinquefoil and morning glory from the terrace wall—even with my attention, those parts of the yard that won’t get me in trouble get to grow with abandon. We machete back the blue false indigo and whip the river oats and little bluestem from the rain garden.
So begins the assemblage of a brush pile in the back alley. We are lucky to have a paved way that runs from the street almost to the backyard. Those vines, brush, weeds, and tree limbs we assiduously hack away gets stacked. Over the course of a weekend, working two or so hours a day, we turn the empty concrete slab behind the house into an immense pile of organic matter.
We have good neighbors behind us who really do like to keep a good yard. Their place is kempt but not overly fussy. They prune their fruit trees like orchard keepers should. Unlike me, they keep the grapes in truss and their dandelions mowed. They grow raspberries whose unholy presence might mean the death of us all if my neighbors did not cut and dig and control.
They contribute to the brush pile that sits until one Saturday, I borrow my friend Stan and his truck and we shove the whole mass into the back of the pickup. We take our goods—what represents a year of fertility—to the municipal mulch pile so that men in giant machines can chew all those limbs and skeletal weeds into chips and dust.
I’d like to start my wilderness experiment now. We have a clean slate. Everything is in good shape, as far as the aesthetics of the American yard go. I’d like to just let it go, care not one lick for what happens until this time next year. One season would do a job on us, and I can imagine what it all might look like. But I can’t foresee what two or three years would produce. What kinds of plants might dominate after two seasons? Would the errant Bradford pear create a stubble rising in narrow stalks toward the gutters? What would become of the battle between buckeye and silver maple? Would the Siberian elms, whose roots I’m convinced encircle the earth, stud the fence lines and create a new, impenetrable barrier that keeps the dogs in?
My reveries of building an urban wilderness always end with at the thought of the Japanese honeysuckle. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill American honeysuckle that is increasingly rare in urban areas. It’s an invasive that some ornamental plant nut imported from Japan in the mid-nineteenth century. They thought they were doing good. In fact, they did irreparable harm. To me, as well as Midwestern urban forests.
I take Japanese honeysuckle personally. I don’t hate plants in general, but this is one invasive bush-tree that I can’t stand. I’m sure, if the surrounding forest is any measure, that this bane of humankind would take over in the end. It forms a low canopy through which no light would fall. It chokes out the cinquefoil and morning glory. It gives no quarter to those rambunctious silver maples and Siberian elms. No saplings or grass or weed grows under its branches. It leaves the ground beneath it as sterile as the Atacama Desert.
I’ve seen what it wreaks on the hills around us. It’s like nature’s RoundUp, killing everything in its path but itself. Soon, within about twenty years, the bluffs overlooking the valley will be nothing but Japanese honeysuckle. All the buckeye, cottonwood, oak, and maple have limited lifespans. They will die, leaving the inclines barren of all but what killed them. I don’t know that the invasive honeysuckle shades itself out of existence, as well. But if it does, I’m sure that new bush-trees take its place.
So, I can’t let the yard go. I’d enjoy it well enough but the Japanese honeysuckle would crowd the periphery of my vision. I would always be conscious of it, creeping primordially across flat areas where the henbit and dandelions grow. I would see it in its predictable end: sterility of the earth.
No, I can’t let it win. I have to dig and chop and fumigate, use RoundUp and Gordon’s Stump Killer. I have to burn it out of the rain garden. I can’t let it denude and sterilize what I work so hard to ignore. It cannot become what its destiny mandates. Not on my watch.